The three peaks. Or The Three Peaks Challenge. In capitals. The capitals make it A Thing; makes the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales respectively into a mission. A race against time to complete it within the traditional 24-hour time limit. There’s no race director, no chip timings and no one at the finish to mark you off as having completed it or otherwise. It’s purely a matter of sporting honesty that you claim glory or admit defeat. The challenges are self-imposed. The rewards non-existent. No medals are handed out. You’re on your own. It’s you and your team against the clock. And the mountains. Because these are mountains, over 970m and not to be dismissed. The challenge is something that many people I know seem to have done. And this makes it seem safe, if not difficult.
First; you have to get to the start point, and a lot of the discomfort of the challenge for me was about sitting in a cramped mini bus, wishing I was out on the hills. Arriving at the base of Ben Nevis at 1330, we crossed the bridge, and we were off. The group was a mixed bag of outdoor lovers, fit gym bunnies, people who’d trained and people who hadn’t. Outdoor gear on offer included malfunctioning walking poles, a light-up hat, the best Gore-Tex waterproofs and a pair of trainers.
Banter and high-spirits had dominated the trip up and we set off supremely optimistic about the 24 hours ahead. The weather was overcast and damp but nothing too surprising for mid-October. Most people attempt the challenge in the summer months, benefiting from the additional hours of daylight and generally better weather.
The highest of the three peaks at 1345m, Ben Nevis has a clearly defined path which didn’t feel too steep. We crossed a beautiful waterfall and stopped for selfies. The group stretched out, snaking down the hill, and now and again we’d stop to let everyone catch up, grabbing a snack, adding or removing layers. Things looked good and we were making great time.
A few hundred metres before the summit, flurries of sleet appeared and we put on hats, gloves, extra layers. To either side, deep ravines appears and then disappeared again in shrouds of mist. My stomach lurched as I peered over the edge.
Reaching the top, we found it wasn’t too windy and that there were plenty of people milling around, making the most of the ruins at the top to provide a wind break. We took joyful selfies at the top, congratulated each other, and set off down again.
The descent was uneventful until the last few hundred feet, when wet granite boulders caused many of us to fall. When we reached the bottom, we spread all our wet kit out around the inside of the mini bus and set off for Scafell Pike.
The journey seemed to take forever, winding, narrow roads gave way to motorway and then again to tiny country lanes. Sheep had to be shooed off the road as we approached Wasdale Head; the traditional start point for the three peaks route up Sacfell.
The mini bus driver was frustrating in his care for the rules of the road and the treatment of the (hired) mini bus. This didn’t help, but we bundled up, donned boots and fixed head torches as we arrived at the car park.
When we jumped out of the bus, we ran into a distraught young woman, who had last seen her boyfriend on the mountain. She’d felt unwell and had turned around and come back down at about 4.30pm. He’d gone on to the top alone. It was now midnight. We promised to look out for him and set off.
The going was much steeper, and it was much more challenging picking your way up in the dark. The weather was mild though, and I consoled myself with the fact that this was the lowest of the three.
We crossed a fast-flowing stream and a boggy area before the path became more difficult; rocky and uneven. The weather began to deteriorate; a thick mist was descending and the wind was beginning to whistle.
Another half an hour of climbing and the wind had begun to howl, horizontal rain stung our faces and our head torches made it look like trippy lines whizzing across our eyes. Although we couldn’t see it, I felt the steep drop to the left of the path, and subconsciously chose to stay over to my right. We turned right at the big cairn; so far, so good. We must have lost the path a few times after that, scrambling over bigger rocks and then boulders, with ankle-breaking, dark gaps between.
We somehow found the summit cairn and stopped long enough to switch a broken head torch, do a quick check that everyone was there, and turned around, planning to dash down as fast as we could, and still on track for the 24-hour time.
The conditions become increasingly difficult. In my naivety, I had no idea the weather in England could be that bad. Visibility was so bad that once you looked down to find your footing, you looked back up and could barely see the lights of the head torches bobbing down the mountain in front of you. I called to the person ahead to wait; my voice was whipped away in the wind.
The string of lights coming down the mountain became spread out. The lead group waited for the others to catch up, beginning to freeze as we did so. At one point we lost the path and had to go back up to find it again. The slower members of the group got slower still. The time was ticking away and by the time we had crossed the stream again, the chances of completing the course within the time slipped away.
Several of the group were struggling badly; because of lack of preparation or decent kit. You don’t feel hungry in the middle of the night, but should keep eating in spite of that. They were not in a good way by the time we reached the mini bus. The combination of factors, plus getting back into the bus with the driver with least urgency ever, meant that we were definitely off the 24-hour time and could relax and enjoy Snowdon with no time pressure.
That realisation accepted, we all managed to sleep a little on the mini bus and arrived at Snowdon a little after 1030.
When I’d walked up Snowdon without first having walked up two other mountains, it felt great; enjoyable, quite easy even, and certainly quick.
Although I went with this previous experience firmly tucked away, it was longer and harder than I remembered. The wind whipped down after on 20 minutes of walking, and only got worse as we climbed.
Despite all that, it was busy with a mixture of people in charity t-shirts, families, dogs and one or two other groups we recognised who had also been on Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike.
The descent was in a howling wind, with little visibility. People’s legs were starting to go, knees and ankles complaining. Surprisingly, everyone from the group attempted Snowdon, despite the difficulties of the previous night. Two or three of them were turned back by our guide about two-thirds of the way up, as the group were now spread out in a range of individual bids for the summit.
As we arrived to Betws-y-coed and the warmth and comfort of the hotel, with storm Ophelia approaching, we returned to some disturbing news. The young man who’d disappeared on Scafell Pike, having set off in daylight in reasonable weather, had still not been found. The following day it was reported on the news that mountain rescue teams had found his body. We’re not sure if he fell, or got lost, or died of hypothermia, but it was a sobering thought.
You imagine the three peaks (or I did) as something akin to a marathon – indeed it’s around 42km of distance, with around 9,000ft of vertical ascent – hard, but safe enough if you train for it and are determined. I have a new-found love of those mountains. I’ve exorcised my own less-than-glorious memories of being a wet and miserable child on so many family holidays in the lakes or on Dartmoor, and replaced them with the raw beauty and power and awesome reality of those three peaks. I have new-found respect for the conditions the British autumn weather could throw at us, and a huge sense of achievement at what we went through to complete the three peaks.
I’m determined to come back and have another go next summer to make it within the 24 hours, with a faster vehicle and considerably more careless driver (see also; better weather, more daylight).
Three peaks is a real test of endurance; of body and mind, outdoor kit and team work. And that’s what makes it A Thing worth doing.
When you speak to a group of adults, they do, by and large, sit quietly while you talk. They’re polite enough to look at you and occasionally nod or smile. But often, they’re thinking about other things. The mundane stuff of life that occupies us all most of the time – that task I must do when I get back to my desk. What I’m making for dinner later, wondering about where you got your shoes and if I’d be able to pull them off. Anything, usually, but what you’re actually saying. An opportunity to switch off for ten minutes or half an hour.
When I went to talk to 90 year 4s at a primary school in Gloucester, I had visions of talking to an equally bored and unresponsive audience, and really wondered how I’d fill two hours of talking.
First of all, these kids had prepared properly. They’d been studying Antarctica for the whole of the previous term. They were impressively clued up about the subject. This meant they enjoyed being asked about it. Enjoyed sharing what they knew, and they were rightly proud of it. It felt a little bit like adults might find a pub quiz at times.
I asked them to share their experiences – everyone had a chance to tell me what kinds of adventure they’d been on. The point of the exercise was to include everyone, but also to demonstrate (I hoped) that they’d all been on some sort of adventure. Some had climbed mountains, some had been camping, one had taken her Nan to the top of the local hill. It was exactly as I’d hoped – it showed that adventures can be had without mounting a £300,000 expedition.
The school wasn’t in a wealthy area. The children were from a whole range of backgrounds. But every single one of them was interested in what was going on. When you talked, they listened, when you asked them a question, they really thought about the answer.
Of course, I have a lot to say on the subject of Antarctica, and I’m especially excited about anything to do with these mythical wastes. But we covered maths, history, geography, climate change and the Antarctic Treaty (not brought up by me but by one tiny girl in the front row).
And we had tremendous fun. We guessed the names of female adventurers, we had throw-out prizes from my brand, Snugpak (everyone loved those, even the teachers). Then we went outside and the teachers had a go at tyre hauling. I gave the smallest boy a ride on the tyre.
One of the boys asked if I’d come back when I’d been to Greenland and Antarctica. Not one of the teachers.
As my first school talk, it’ll be hard to beat – especially as my expectations of talking to children were right down there with my experience of talking to (some, not all) adults.
We tried Expedition Foods, we laughed about how you go for a number two in Antarctica. The girls hugged me before I left, the boys waved.
I definitely couldn’t do that often – I haven’t discovered my new calling as a teacher, far from it. I couldn’t do their difficult job all the time. But I rediscovered the joy and enthusiasm of childhood, and that is something we could do with a little of every day.
With thanks to Dinglewell Junior School, Snugpak and Expedition Foods.
How can you be deeply affected by the death of someone you knew only a little? The death I’m talking about was a murder. And the person I’m thinking about was a female adventurer. I met Emma only a few times, while I was in South America helping a team prepare for an Antarctica expedition. Emma was herself getting ready for an expedition – skiing solo to the South Pole.
We spent a week in and out of a warehouse with all the teams who were about to set out on various Antarctica expeditions, prepping kit, and in the evenings we all ate together each evening, swapping stories from previous adventures and speculating about weather windows for flights into the Polar logistics base.
Emma had previously hiked the PCT, and done a guided Polar trip the season before. When she’d done with Antarctica she announced her Source to Sea plans and set about training for it within months.
Having said all that, I didn’t know her well. So why am I so dumbfounded by her disappearance and likely murder in the Brazilian Amazon?
As female adventurers, we’re always being told to get out there and do it, from advertising slogans to inspirational stories. Nothing can stop you, we’re told. Nothing bad will happen if you’re badass enough.
Taking risks is part of adventure after all. Things can and do go wrong. The elements beat you, wild animals can’t be tamed. But you plan for that. You calculate your risks. No one really mentions other human beings. People respect the mountains, and sometimes there’s no answer to their harsh judgment, but to have another human being take away your life, and over a robbery, somehow goes against everything adventure is about. We expect other people to respect our search for the unknown, our journey into hearts of darkness, our search for the answers to questions, which lie in the great outdoors and seeing what lies beyond.
If she’d been a man, would it have made any difference? Probably not, as a local police man had disappeared in the area not long before, but there’s something about Emma’s story that makes her seem vulnerable in those last few weeks, the social media updates that became creepier as time went on.
She was determined to travel solo, despite the risks. Does that make her at fault? Of course not. She was among the many strong women who believe it is their right to live as they wish, it was a statement, if anything, that she refused to live in fear.
But we live in a very privileged and overwhelmingly law-abiding first world country, where respect for life is ingrained. And incidents like this a so rare in Western Europe.
It’s touched me because there’s a bit of Emma in those of us who are striving to grab life with both hands, on equal terms. Because you have to think it’s never going to happen to you, otherwise you’d never step outside your front door, never mind your comfort zone. Being stubborn and bloody-minded enough to travel without an armed guard is a what got her across Antarctica, down the first part of the Amazon, and in the end cost her her life. Of course it’s that bit closer to home as I’d spent time with Emma.
What I’m most sad about is that she didn’t make the front pages of the national newspapers when she’d done a Polar journey, reached the South Pole and embraced life with gusto, only when her life had been snatched away from her. I hope what happened isn’t used as a reason to berate female adventurers for taking risks. That simply wouldn’t happen if she’d been a man. Platitudes like ‘she died doing what she loved’ simply don’t cut it for me in this case, because it shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t a cliff fall, or a storm, or even an attack by wild animals. You could almost understand it if it were, as those are the risks you anticipate.
May we all continue to get out there and do our thing, without casting risk aside but pursuing adventure without fear in our hearts.
My thoughts are with her family and friends at this sad time.
The news is I’ve officially launched my expedition, with a visit to Gilbert White’s House in Hampshire, and a tour round the Oates collection by my patron and Captain Oates expert, Patrick Cordingley.
Captain Oates was in Scott’s final sledging party who did make it to the South Pole – only to find Amundsen and his team had made it there before them. Events – including the unpredictable Antarctic weather – conspired against them and they died on the return journey. Oates famously sacrificed himself to try and save his companions, walking out into the snow with the famous words ‘I may be some time.’
The launch was a very special day – Patrick has been a fantastic support after agreeing immediately on being asked to be my patron.
He’s not only wise and generous, he’s also incredibly knowledgeable about my favourite topic – Antarctica. We geeked out over Oates’ original letters to his mother from the Terra Nova, and wondered at the craftsmanship (and weight!) of the original sledge on display. My friend and photographer was bemused by all our excitement over bits of leather and wood, old mottled flags and replica gear.
We took plenty of photos and examined all the items on display. I’d spotted some items which had been collected from Scott’s tent when the rescue party eventually found it – including Scott’s original sledge pulling harness. I’ve spent many hours clipped into my own harness – in generally good conditions and with plenty of comfortable padding. Scott’s had no such luxury. It was a webbing belt with buckles and leather straps. No padding and certainly not as comfortable for mile upon mile of dragging heavy wooden and metal sledges.
The curator could see my enthusiasm, which I’m sure must have been catching. There was no one else around. I asked if I could take it out of the cabinet and try it on. I held my breath. He studied me for a moment. ‘I’ll get the keys’, he said.
I was holding the harness in my hands and I truly felt the weight of history. I slipped it over my shoulders and wrapped it round my waist. Without all those Polar layers it went round me twice. I could imagine it digging into me as I strained against the weight of the sledge.
There was something so sad about it – Scott’s journey was so bitter-sweet – they made it to their destination, but never made it home. I wondered it Scott himself would have been surprised at how much he has become a national hero. I realised that few people have ever touched it since it was brought back from Antarctica – perhaps no one has ever tried it on – it was such a privilege and I was totally in awe.
Perhaps some of Scott’s determination, and his love of the seventh continent, has been passed on. That one unique opportunity fired my heart even more for the most desolate and unforgiving place on earth.
With thanks to Josh at the Oates Collection.
The tyre over the concrete path sounded Shush, Shush as I leant into the harness and dragged it steadily along. It wouldn’t be so difficult soon, I told myself, soon I’ll be on a smooth tow-path and the resistance will be lower. Tyres are meant to stick to roads after all, aren’t they? I could already feel my legs aching after just a few hundred metres, and it took all my strength to keep a steady pace. It’s momentum that’s key to hauling a tyre – the best training available to practise hauling all your kit and equipment in special sledges, called pulks.
Soon I’ll be doing this for real – with training expeditions to Norway and Greenland just around the corner – I need to be able to do this for hours, maybe 9 or 10 hours, each day for weeks.
Immediately I attract attention – some boaters have heard the noise of the tyre and couldn’t quite place it. They climbed up the bank and announced ‘We thought you were the village idiot.’ I think the same sometimes! They were really interested in what I was training for, so I explained all about Antarctica. To a fan of this mystical place, it still surprises that people don’t know there are no polar bears, or that nothing really lives in the interior. They have a ride in the tyre and I try and pull them – this makes a great picture but I get nowhere. It’s nice to have an excuse to stop and chat to people to be honest, but we soon say our goodbyes and I’m off again.
I’m not fast, but I’m steady, and once I’m in the swing of it I can enjoy the scenery. This part of the Thames Path, near Lechlade, is supposed to be one of the prettiest sections. The concrete path turns a corner and I’m at a picture-postcard sweet lock, with a cottage still occupied by the lock keeper, and flowers in pots and hanging baskets all around the edge of the river.
The smooth tow path I’d imagined was not to be. The terrain was primarily long grass on bumpy paths – something you’d barely notice if you were strolling along unencumbered by a tyre on a rope. I am starting to learn where the tyre will catch, spotting roots or fence posts and learning when it will try and jerk me back. Patiently, I stop and lift it over obstacles, through gates and down steps.
My companion for the day was not pulling tyres, but entertained me with stories – it was a rather one-way conversation as I was concentrating hard on the all-important momentum.
The route really was the prettiest – we walked through tall grass and butterflies took to the air in a cloud of colour as we passed. We spotted iridescent dragonflies and even a frog. We barely saw anyone despite it being a beautiful Saturday in July. I was surprised how remote it felt even though we were by the Thames.
We reached a pub after 5 miles and I was supremely glad to sit in the shade with a Coke and literally take the weight off. We assessed our progress – we needed to get back to Lechlade and at the current speed it would have been very late by the time we arrived. The pub offered to look after my tyre and harness and from there I practically skipped the rest of the route, which took in World War II pill boxes and wooded glades.
My friend said goodbye and returned to London. I’d planned to sleep out that night and set off to recce a suitable spot. It was to be the first time I’d slept in just a bivvy bag – it was warm and the forecast was good; travel light I thought.
I walked further and further from the layby I’d left my car in. Along past a pub, mooring points and a long way further – past the pylons which hummed in the summer twilight.
I think it was a combination of things; not being able to spot a place which was both homely and comfortable; far enough from the path to be safe but close to a hedgerow, or was it that it felt too far from my fellow human beings? Not that surely, as I’ve happily wild camped alone. I’ve concluded that it was the lack of a tent which put me off. Something primeval and innate this –when alone – stopped me from wanting to just lay down in the undergrowth and go to sleep. A tent may not provide any safety – it’s only a bit of nylon after all – but there’s something about being enclosed which makes you feel protected. If I’d been with someone else, that might have been a different story. I learned something about myself that night, as I turned around and retraced my steps back to the car and headed home.
I’m sure that every time we go out into the wild, what we learn is something about ourselves as much as anything we might learn about our environment. I learned that I like a tent! It’s not really that much extra weight. I’ll be making sure I pack my Bunker for extra security (!) next time.
Map reading 101. As in, if you left me on a hillside with a map, I’d end up lost in the mist, going round in circles and hoping for mobile signal/ a large landmark/ my friends. I’ve always loved maps, but they seemed to be a beautiful, secret code I couldn’t crack.
After my first Outing Alone With A Map a few months ago, the (metaphorical) mists were starting to clear. I could see where I was on the map, although it was a well-trodden path with a multitude of signs, so I couldn’t go far wrong.
Fast-forward to the Radnor Hills. Beautiful, but without any major features. It all looks pretty much the same, both on the map and in reality. Rounded hillocks of heather, sheep, the odd muddy pond and a few cliffs. This made it perfect for map reading practice, where you can’t cheat by using, say, a huge church. I learned to take a bearing, and to trust it. There must be books or online tutorials for this, but following the compass and finding out it really does get you back to where you intended was a brilliant feeling. My tutor had done this a million times before, so it was less daunting to follow a line over some grass which looked exactly like every other bit of grass. Somehow, we got lucky with the weather; the sun shone and every feature was visible. I need some mist! Some fog! Some darkness and rain! But I’m glad this time was a chance to learn a new skill and be warm and dry while I was doing it.
Then you can start looking at features and thinking ‘I want to investigate that, that looks cool.’ As I’m fond of a wild swim (especially on sunny days), we aimed for a lake I’d spotted on the map. And we found it! Although it wasn’t ideal for swimming – too much algae and a lot of bird life – there was a hidden path down to a shady jetty, and we rested on the upturned boats contemplating the brilliance of my (our) navigation.
The plan had been to wild camp up on the hill, but the determination to find a wild swimming spot sent us off in the direction of the River Wye. How I identify a camping spot: is there anyone around? Is it flat? Will it flood in the night? Good, right, that’ll do. How my team-mate identifies a camping spot: searches for one close to the river, with its own beach and huge tree for shade. Actually, a lot better. But it was on the opposite side of the river. Of course.
Crossing the river at a shallow but fast-running place was dramatic. I had a lot of kit, including my phone which I really didn’t want to drop in the water. I’d rolled up my trouser legs and put on my wetsuit shoes, tying my walking boots to my rucksack. I must have looked a comical sight, not really an adventurous type, more like an overloaded clothes horse. As soon as I stepped out I almost slipped. The mossy rocks below the surface were impossible to grip, and concentrating on the fast flowing water made me feel dizzy. It took ages, feeling my way blindly, transferring my (unbalanced) weight. But it was worth it – once across and setting up the tent, it was a tiny, completely deserted paradise, and perfect for wild swimming.
We had brought wetsuits, but barely needed them. Bobbing about in the water and watching the sun set upriver, with swans idly regarding us as they floated past, this was one of the best wild swimming spots I’d ever been to. Deep enough for proper swimming in places, with rocks to rest on, we tried a bit of upriver swimming too before we got out and lit the fire.
Dehydrated rations taste good after a day like that, especially when rounded off with a little drink in front of the fire, surrounded by the growing shadows – a toast to an amazing day.
With huge thanks to Snugpak for providing home for the night – the Bunker three-man tent, and their latest expedition towel, perfect for wild swimming! http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/bunker
(With apologies to Al Humphreys, whose pic idea I copied!!)
Can you truly have an adventure if you are part of an organised group, with a leader? When I think of adventure, I think of self reliance, of resilience, and of solving your own problems. Amundsen said that adventure was just bad planning, but doesn’t someone else doing the planning (bad or otherwise) take some of the adventure (or satisfaction) away?
A group of us were booked on a sea kayaking trip with an outdoor centre in Devon. A few days before, the forecast was deemed to be too bad to go kayaking, and a series of other activities were offered instead. I was really geared up to do the sea kayaking but very happy to go with the flow with alternatives. I was very much the new girl, as the others all live in the same village and knew each other pretty well. I know I’m a slightly swotty child who is often annoyed when I don’t grasp something straightaway, so I was keen to chill out and just enjoy the weekend.
We piled kit and humans into the mini-bus as set off to the Plym river for gorge walking. It was actually great to be ferried around and not have to worry about routes – ‘where the hell are we going, we are in the middle of nowhere and the signal’s gone’, or kit ‘I thought we had a helmet each, where did we leave the other one?’ and so on, and just enjoy the scenery en route.
Gorge walking is essentially walking upstream in a gorge. There’s a little practise but not much skill required and it’s just tremendous fun sliding down rocks, climbing waterfalls and swimming in the pools that have been worn by millennia of crashing river water. The sun shone (to such an extent that we did wonder why we weren’t in the sea. The answer came later in the day with high winds).
The setting was beautiful and the morning a lot of fun. We sat – rather like children on a school trip – by the river and ate out packed lunch, contemplating our good fortune. We’d all left actual children behind, and it was brilliant to be in a group of like minds – determined to make the most of the time.
The afternoon was a chance to go climbing at the Dewerstone. ‘Real’ climbers were busy with multi-pitch routes up sheer rock. We were tackling a much lower route. With a couple of very good climbers amongst us, it was a real testament to the leaders that everyone – from the very experienced to the completely new (me) – managed to challenge themselves and get something from it. I learned to belay (and was nearly off my feet belaying for a much bigger person, which only shows my inexperience).
We then pottered off to our wild camping spot – which was a designated wild camping site (isn’t that an oxymoron?!). Either way, we arrived at East Soar Farm and found a barn to dry our kit in, a bigger barn on the edge of the centre which was our sleeping area, and a great facility for hikers and campers. We opted for the no-frills, no cheating option and set ourselves up for the night.
Weight wasn’t so much of an issue as we were being bussed around, and I discovered that a lot of the room in the mini-bus had been taken up by booze! We set up a makeshift bar in the doorway of the sleeping barn and the selection would have impressed any pub.
Activity leaders Richard and Matt had taken care of supper – a vat of chilli which we all helped prepare and then cook over an open fire. The group then went to the headland while supper cooked – a short walk and a scramble onto the rocks and we watched the sunset with our legs dangling over the precipice into the wild sea below. It was a real plus point to the trip that we didn’t have to leave anyone behind to take care of food, and when we strolled back at dusk, supper was ready, and the fire was going well.
We talked into the night about politics, adventure, life, the universe and everything. As night fell the clear sky revealed a glittering of stars.
I’d opted to sleep in my tent as my experiences of shared sleeping space usually meant no sleep at all. I was right to do so as in the morning there were many complaints about snoring! I’d had a very cosy night’s sleep and – bar a late-night game of banagrams outside my tent – hadn’t heard a thing.
The led aspect of the trip came into its own when we went coasteering – a sort of mix of sea swimming, rock scrambling and jumping into the sea off cliffs. The weather wasn’t great and we were all chilly to start with. But the setting was stunning – somehow we had the whole area to ourselves, despite it being a bank holiday weekend – rugged cliffs were covered in woodland and deserted coves hid behind rocky outcrops.
We started with getting wet – not an inviting proposition initially, even with wetsuits – but we were soon clambering over rocks and learning safe entry to the water. You might think an enthusiastic amateur could just jump in – but with the tides, the unpredictable swell and the submersed rocks, an expert with local knowledge was essential. It’s easy to see how you could quickly get into trouble trying to ‘egress’ (a great word for the late-night banagrams in future!) or get out of the sea onto the rocks. Even if you jumped in safely you might not have located, or been able to see, a place to get out again.
We’d been out for a while, people were getting cold, and one of the leaders had fallen badly on some rocks, but we all agreed we wanted to go on, to do a little more.
We jumped off bigger and bigger cliffs, which was exhilarating – and everyone found something which challenged them.
We held each other as if our life depending on it while being smashed by huge swells, and swam across open sea to reach other cliffs. The highlight of the day was jumping off what felt like a huge cliff, surfacing and bobbing about, only to realise there was a huge seal swimming with us who’d similarly popped up to see what was going on!
Nothing feels better than warm, dry kit when you’re tired, wet and cold. Except a huge lunch of course. And once we were dry we were driven back to the centre for lunch and huge mugs of tea, while we giggled at the photos Matt took throughout the weekend.
So was it an adventure? Absolutely. What made it an adventure if all we had to do was turn up? The fact that every one of us faced, and overcame, personal challenges. Whether it was abseiling, jumping into the sea, climbing a difficult route, squeezing through narrow caves (for the claustrophobic, you’ll know what I mean), and succeeding. It was also the adventure of being together, and working together, of learning about people beyond the small talk of the everyday, and the real dangers of the coasteering on the second day.
Yes, it removed major aspects of the trip – logistics and planning, and a huge amount of experience and knowledge from the leaders – from our hands, but it definitely freed the mind (and the body) for a whole different kind of adventure.
With thanks to Richard and Matt at Reach Outdoors, Goodrington Sands, Paignton, Devon.
Note- I was not paid to endorse Reach Outdoors. With thanks to Matt from Reach Outdoors for the pic.
Sometimes when writing a blog, it’s hard to know which parts to include and which to leave out, especially when you’re trying to capture the events of more than one day. So, after ten days skydiving in California, and a few days back home to contemplate everything that went on, I’m still not sure which of the events I should write about. There’s almost too much to write; what Southern California is like (not glamorous in the way you might think, but certainly fascinating), what it’s like to go all the way to the West coast of America and only visit drop zones, or what the skydiving was like. But I think I should focus on the jumping, as that was the main purpose of the trip.
The kitmonster was ready with my rig (my canopy, reserve and container), which takes up 10kg of weight, and there was room for enough clothes for ten days too. When I arrived at the airport to check it in, I tried to make it look light……
Before I left, I’d been warned that skydiving in the States was ‘lawless’, and that no safety checks are carried out, that people jump without guidance, and that you’re totally responsible for your own safety. Add to this a long flight, and a new drop zone, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t really looking forward to it! I was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are fewer restrictions, people looked after each other, and the number one rule was ‘don’t fly like an ***hole’, which covered most aspects!
Having arrived and done our paperwork to jump at a new drop zone, I watched a few plane loads of skydivers jump and land before I got in the plane myself. The landing area at Elsinore is long and narrow, and looking at the aerial photograph, I seriously doubted my ability to land anywhere near it. At one end were the drop zone buildings, at the other a lake
The ride to altitude was stunning, and I was looking out of the window to check I could still spot the landing area from the air. On one side were mountain, on the other the ocean, and below us neat rows of houses, baseball and football stadiums, and the freeway. I was relieved to find that I could orientate myself using these landmarks better than I can at my own dropzone (which is mainly fields), and was amazed to find I could land where I was supposed to too. I landed pretty far away on my first jump there, just to be 100% safe, as landing closer meant travelling closer to the buildings under canopy. I landed in a field of flowers and they smelled wonderful as I strolled back.
The beauty of jumping in California is the continually sunny weather; making jumping something you can do all day, every day if the mood takes you. In the heat of the day, dust devils can swirl up; mini tornados which can be dangerous for jumpers – we saw a few but were lucky not to be caught in any under canopy.
We also visited Perris, a famous dropzone which has more planes, more people and even a swimming pool when you’re tired of jumping, and San Diego, a beautiful dropzone in a nature reserve.
Then I had a malfunction. It can take a number of forms, and is where your main canopy doesn’t open properly, or you’re unable to land it because of line twists. Your safety procedures are drilled into you from day one, and you’ll often see experienced jumpers practising their emergency drills in the plane. I almost expect a malfunction every time I jump, so when it happened, it was just as I’d been taught. I had serious line twists. Often, you can kick these out like you would do when you’re a kid on a swing, but these were still twisting, and I was spiralling to earth with no canopy above my head. I knew I needed to ‘chop’ my main, and reached for my cutaway handle. It was so quick, I didn’t even have time to pull my reserve handle before the various safety devices opened it for me and I had a perfect canopy above my head.
It wasn’t as scary as I thought it might be, as it was exactly as I’d been taught. Skydivers are a close-knit group – I had lots of morale support both at the DZ and from friends back home when I landed. The main piece of advice is to get immediately back in the plane and get on with your next jump.
A wise skydiving friend spoke to me about what had happened, he said; “It was fear that brought you here in the first place.” That was a smart thing to say, and helpful. It is true. I was scared when I did a tandem, a solo jump, a freefly jump. There’s always something new to learn, and this was just another of those lessons. I knew now that I could make the decision to cutaway in a split second, that my reserve drills worked.
I got back in the plane the next morning, at Perris, where a skyvan awaited. A taller plane, it opens with a ramp at the back, instead of the usual roll-up door on the side. I put the malfunction out of my mind and away we went. We were doing a formation jump, which required my to do a headstand out of the door. Of course I was afraid. But it was fear that brought me here.
My journey home was nightmarish – stuck in a strange, time-zoneless purgatory of various airports, delayed flights, missed connections and travelling away from my destination. I was convinced I’d never see the Kitmonster or my rig again. I was tired, and ready to head to missing baggage when the monster arrived on the carousel. I have never been so relieved or surprised to see it!
Check out the Snugpak kitmonster in all its forms here http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/rucksacks/kitmonster-120
The Kitmonster and I go to Spain.
Sitting in the bar at the drop zone, surrounded by Spanish voices and Ed Sheeran non-stop on the local radio station, I’m glancing hopefully out of the window at the rain. You can see for miles and I can definitely see sunshine on the horizon. Are the clear skies coming this way? A skydiver’s endless optimism and hopeless nose for guessing the weather tells me so.
I arrived on Thursday, having had a couple of hours sleep since Tuesday night. Armed with my rig (my canopy, the container it goes it, a reserve canopy and an automatic activation device) my Kitmonster is heavy. Definitely over the measley budget airline allowance I fear. Plus my friends in Spain have asked for emergency supplies of gravy, custard creams and orange squash. I dump it down on the scales doing my best to make it look light as I do so -19.1kg!
Eventually my friends find me and my kit wandering the tiny streets of the village just outside the drop zone. It’s a maze of one way lanes and everything looks vaguely familiar.
We head straight to the drop zone – an hour’s stroll along a dusty track past olive groves and rich red-brown fields. It sounds idyllic, and it is. Leather-faced old men drive past in 4x4s, loose dogs eye us with condescension.
The drop zone itself has everything required: somewhere to pack your parachute, and an office to manifest (or book yourself on a flight). There’s also a bar – essential for decent coffee and bad weather days.
Although I’ve brought my own kit, it’s a canopy I haven’t jumped since I broke my wrist in July and I decide to jump and bigger canopy, supplied by the drop zone.
I don’t jump that day – the winds are strong and I’m tired. That coupled with a new dz mean I take the decision to get a good nights sleep and jump the next morning.
The first couple of jumps are fun jumps with friends, but I’m still nervous. A drop zone I haven’t jumped at for over a year, skydive Spain has super-fast planes which get you to altitude in minutes. We all get comfortable and going from my home dz where I know everyone in the plane feels unfamiliar and not a little scary.
At home we have no seats in the plane, so we all bundle in together, a jumble of arms and legs, occasionally moving a foot or arm as we get strapped in. We then have what feels like a long time to reach altitude; time to visualise the jump, time to remember that there’s only one way you’re getting back to the ground, and that’s out the door. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone here.
We’re at a higher altitude – 15,000ft – before I know it and the green light is on. The advantage of course is more time in freefall. I really noticed the extra seconds, time to practice more and have fun with your jump buddies.
But in the back of my mind are two things. The first is that last time I came here I got my first skydiving qualification, and I’m going to get another while I’m here. Then there’s the landing. While you’re in freefall, it’s the perfect moment of concentration, of focus. If you’re after mindfulness, it’s right up there. You can’t think about anything else, not even as far ahead as being under canopy. But once you pull, and your canopy is fully open above your head, then you need to land it. Since getting injured, I’m a lot more safety-conscious (or danger-conscious) and landing at a new dz often causes me to land off (not on the designated landing area). I’m happily hanging out over the landing area and confident I can make it. But as I’m maybe 20ft from the ground I see that I’m coming in much faster than usual, despite being on the same size canopy as I’m used to. I’m sure someone can explain to me why it’s ‘faster’ here. Either way I prepare for a dodgy landing and a slide ungracefully on my backside for about 20ft.
The rest of the day is a lot easier but I still struggle with the fast ride to altitude and poor landings.
As milestones go, 100 jumps isn’t really anything to be excited about as it’s only at 200 jumps that you can really begin. But it is customary to do something memorable – jumping naked is bizarrely popular. I had planned to wear my grandfather’s flying suit which I’d had specially altered – he was a Lancaster bomber test pilot in the war – but it was so heavy I couldn’t justify bringing it out for just one jump. Sorry grandad – I’ll save it for 200 jumps.
Instead I found a couple of friends and we did a hybrid jump, my first one. It was a great success. That buzz you get when you have a jump that goes well, or you jump with good friends and spend the whole time grinning from ear to ear at the awesomeness of it all, that moment, those precious seconds of freefall; the world is at your feet.
Wild (or not so wild) camping in Wiltshire
The Wiltshire countryside doesn’t exactly conjure up endurance or hardship. It is a county full of thatched cottages, rolling hills and pretty villages. Having ditched Dartmoor for the closer option of the Clarendon Way, I was initially down-hearted at the thought of what I was expecting to be a gentle stroll.
I packed the same kit, planning to be fully self-reliant; enough warm kit to tackle the March weather, dehydrated food and my one-woman tent. My travelling companion Sue was bringing her map-reading expertise to the party. I haven’t read a map for hiking for years and what I’d done has been mainly classroom-based.
We set off at the start of the Clarendon Way, planning to make it to the 15-mile point by evening, with everything bundled into my Kitmonster http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/rucksacks/kitmonster-65 (I swear I had enough kit for weeks in the wilderness).We passed red phone boxes, horses out for the hunt and tiny post-offices. Sue treated me to an ice cream at the first village, as I had brought no money with me (note to self, most places in the UK are within striking distance of civilisation. And the morale that comes from an ice cream cannot be underestimated).
Sitting outside the shop, having dumped our packs, it was like stepping back in time. Villagers coming to the post office passed the time of day, the sun came out through the fog and it was all rather wonderful.
I thought I’d done quite well on the map reading, and Sue was quite happy for me to take the lead and follow the route through copses, over fields and streams. I was actually able to identify features, track where we were on the map, and find our way. It felt pretty good, and I was confident I hadn’t messed up.
My kit was becoming heavier with each mile (of course it wasn’t, it was the same – or even a bit lighter as we ate our way through some of the contents), but it was a blessed relief when we stopped by a pretty stream to eat gingerbread and play pooh sticks (I did say it was like we’d stepped back in time!).
We reached our destination at around 1600, and there was time to grab a cold drink at the local pub before establishing my micro-adventure camp for the night. I’d recced a suitable spot well outside the village on the way in, and as the light started to fade, I said goodbye to Sue and set off back up the hill. I wanted to get my tent up before nightfall.
There are certain things which add comfort, and a large dose of morale, when you’re out in the field alone. Although I’ve been tempted by tales of travelling light and sleeping under the stars in just a bivvy bag, my lightweight tent, set up with my sleeping bag and roll mat, was inviting and cosy.
I know a tiny sheet of canvas will offer little protection from determined axe-murders but I still feel much safer inside my little domain. I don’t think about it often, concluding that it would have to be some extremely patient opportunist who wandered about in the hills hoping to come across lone travellers.
The spot I’d chosen was under a hedge, offering a tidy wind break for cooking supper. I pulled on my ML9 (http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/clothing/ml9-softie-smock) as it’s surprising how quickly you cool down once you stop working. When you’re outside, most things taste amazing but my Expedition Foods pasta was actual food, and was as good as any I’d tasted.
After that, to conserve phone battery, I read a few poems from a book I’d borrowed from the pub. Having walked for seven hours with my kit, and having completed my tent routine for the night, I didn’t mind going to sleep, even though it was only about 7 o’clock.
As predicted by the met forecast, the rain pluttered lightly on the tent from 4 am, and I was thankful again that I’d brought my tent with me. It’s one of life’s great pleasures; being warm and dry inside your tent while the rain falls outside. I drifted off till dawn, when I woke and made a hot breakfast. Packing away in just the right order to keep everything as dry as possible till the last moment takes some practice, and not a little time, so an hour after I woke, I was fed and packed away ready to go.
Amazingly, even now I was alone, I managed to read the map – it must be something like how we feel as children when we realise we can read and the answer is right there in front of us. I could identify to the nearest 50 metres or so where I was, which meant I didn’t get lost. It sounds so simple when you say it like that, but I was chuckling to myself at my luck at knowing exactly where I was.
Things I should have brought: money, something to read (I promise I’ll take the book back).
Lessons learned: fablon your map! Pointing at your map with a blade of grass (for accuracy) makes you look like you know exactly what you’re doing.
Step one of my brand ambassador role with Snugpak was set to be a visit to their HQ in North Yorkshire. I left my house at 4am, optimistic that any meeting where you are expected to wear outdoor gear was going to be a good one.
The building itself where Snugpak not only has their headquarters but also still makes their key items is definitely worthy of mention in itself. A Grade II listed old wool factory, it’s four storeys are still a hive of activity, just as they had been more than a hundred years ago. As we made our way around, Darren pointed out his own favourite parts of the building; a particular stone step which has been worn into a smooth concave shape as many hundreds of workers climbed the stairs many thousands of times. The lift shaft, no longer used for anything except goods, and the warehouse doors and rope pulley on the outside, all of which are still used to bring in deliveries or send out orders. Unlike today’s sterile offices, there was a feeling of warmth, of things being made, and every single person I met there had a smile on their face.
Darren and I were joined by Todd, Jonny, Charlotte and Steve, and I was having my photo taken all the way round. This is something I usually hate, but having been on the other side of the camera I know how unhelpful it can be if people are reluctant subjects. As Steve snapped away, Darren explained about how the signature jackets and sleeping bags are made, and we chatted about the methods used to make the fibre stuffing, and how technology has advanced production.
Everyone was happy to chat; I met Jim, who’d been with Snugpak for more than 20 years. His wife also works there and the factory is how they met. They are all understandably proud to work for one of the last British manufacturers of outdoor gear, something very unusual today.
Everything from the building and the staff to the location on the edge of the Leeds-Liverpool canal felt so British. We all had fun trying out the tyre-hauling along the canal, and I really felt that Snugpak is a brand where I can belong – where I’ll share stories of my adventures (and disasters no doubt as well), and that they’d support my endeavours.
I’m only sorry it’s not closer to where I live, as I can imagine popping in for a cup of tea and a catch up and they’d always be welcoming.
I left with a goodie-bag of a SJ6 jacket, a Monster kit bag and a Softie smock. I’m getting straight on with trying them out with a training weekend on Dartmoor in February. As desolate a place as any in the UK.
Gear tests based on miserable, wet and windy conditions coming to a blog near you soon!!
Winter running brings happiness if you do it right.
First off, run outside. The only time to run on a treadmill is if. Actually, I can’t think of a good reason to ever run on a treadmill. Anyway. Wrap up and get out. Today was freezing. Literally below zero, not just a little bit chilly. As I ran I was tempted to poke the frozen puddles, like I was still five, and watch the ice give just a little – moving the water underneath around like a live jellyfish under plate glass. I crunched my way through the frost where the ground was untouched by the sun. But the blue skies above lifted the soul, and the crisp air felt brilliant and clean.
Oh it takes your breath away at first, and it takes longer for your muscles to feel warm and your breathing to steady to a regular pace, and breathing out you can see your breath, like when you were small and used to pretend you were a dragon, breathing smoke.
Being outside in winter, when everything is silent and frozen and still, is a magical place to be, and so it brings out the child in us. Even better to be running, feeling warm and fleet of foot, while everyone else is inside, where they can’t feel the icy wind burn their faces, or notice the birds, fluffed up and regarding you as you crunch past.
Remember to bring gloves, trail shoes, a warm hat and a sense of wonder.